World Report

West meets East at a semiotic conference in Beijing

By Charles Forceville

The latest international semiotic conference to be held in China took place on March 25-29, 2004 in Beijing. It was hosted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and jointly organized by Prof. Chen Qineng and Dr. Ye Jun, on behalf of the Academy, and Prof. Roland Posner, on behalf of the International Association for Semiotic Studies. The conference was chaired and coordinated by Prof. Ru Xin and Prof. Chen Yunquian.

Some forty participants, half of them Chinese and the others coming from Europe, the United States and Japan, took part in the conference which was pleasantly intimate and intensive because there were no parallel sessions. During three full days, presenters from East and West took turns giving their papers on a variety of topics ranging from the comprehensive (e.g., "The Semiotic Foundations of the Human Sciences from Augustine to Peirce") to more detailed applications of semiotic method of analysis (e.g., "Peking Opera and Symbols"). The participants included both literary scholars and philosophers, and researchers from the Social Sciences. All the visitors from abroad, including Prof. Takashi Fujimoto from Japan, spoke English and most of the Chinese scholars used their native language, but, thanks to an excellent team of professional translators, communication and discussion could proceed efficiently.

The Chinese hosts obviously felt attracted to the idea of semiotics as an approach to scholarship that transcends disciplinary and cultural boundaries although some seemed less familiar with the details of the philosophical traditions which are at the origin of mainstream western semiotics and the theoretical debates it generated. However, the shared methodology of sign analysis provided the ground for basic mutual understanding. There can be hope that, in the future, more interesting theoretical discussions will take place once western semioticians have become conversant with ancient, classical and modern Chinese philosophy on a level similar to the knowledge of western philosophy that some of the Chinese scholars demonstrated in this conference.

In the closing statements, there were many expressions of hope of a bright future for cross-cultural semiotics. Prof. Li Youzheng (Berlin) stated his belief that semiotics could prove instrumental in bridging scholarly traditions in different disciplines and also contribute to a better understanding between East and West. However, he also warned against the danger for younger Chinese researchers to overlook the richness of their own 5,000 year old cultural legacy and to embrace too uncritically western traditional and modern ideas. He suggested that this issue should be addressed in the forthcoming roundtable on Chinese semiotics during the 8th congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies in July 2004, in Lyon (France). Other suggestions proposed in the final session of the Beijing conference included the creation of a committee to develop semiotic studies in China, projects of further national and international meetings, and the institution of summer schools of semiotics on the model of those already existing in philosophy. Professor Posner wholeheartedly endorsed these proposals, more particularly the project of establishing summer schools, insisting however that it would be counterproductive to treat semiotics as if it were a full-fledged academic discipline. Posner declared that semiotics should rather demonstrate its scholarly value by introducing fruitful approaches in existing disciplines. Semiotics should also prove its pragmatic relevance beyond academia by becoming a part of the professional training of students who will hold positions in domains such as, for instance, education, commerce, communication and medicine.

The coming aboard of Chinese scholars in the international semiotic community will help broaden the vision of western semioticians beyond the scope of modern western philosophy.

Post-conference activities included a visit, under the guidance of Professor Wang Ka, of the impressive library of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. In the final ceremony, Professor Ru Xin thanked the guests for donating their books to the library and presented Professor Roland Posner, as President of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, with a replica of an ancient ivory beaker. The guests were also treated to an array of cultural events including a traditional banquet hosted by the German Hanss-Seidel-Stiftung, a performance of the Peking Opera and a tour of the celebrated historical monuments such as the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs Valley.